The stretch of Interstate 10 separating Tucson from Tempe is a relatively straight shot.
But for infielder Jackson Willeford, his unlikely journey from Arizona to Arizona State has been filled with twists and turns and ups and downs that pulled him off the route before he could get back on again.
After beginning his college career with the Wildcats in 2013, Willeford has endured a whirlwind of a venture now set to culminate with a season playing on the other side of the Territorial Cup rivalry.
A 12th round draft pick of the Kansas City Royals in 2012, Willeford was a highly touted prospect who had the potential to start at Arizona as a freshman. However, the Ramona, California native tore his ulnar collateral ligament during the fall of his first year, forcing him into a role as a designated hitter. After failing to make a full recovery, Willeford had his UCL surgically repaired in May of 2013.
After redshirting his sophomore year, Willeford eventually decided to transfer away from the Wildcats' program to Cypress College, a highly regarded junior college baseball powerhouse. Following a slow start to his first season with the Chargers, an out-of-the-blue text from a friend helped turn his season around.
“I struggled a lot and a guy who I was close with through high school, he shot a text to me saying ‘Hey, starting work the count more, take your walks if you can get them because I was getting pitched around a lot," Willeford said. "I was hitting third in the lineup so I was seeing a lot of breaking and off-speed stuff. He just told me to work the count more and once he told me that I looked at my at-bats and realized I was hitting a little selfishly and took that to heart. I started working the counts, taking my walks, and getting on base and everything started going from there. I just felt pretty comfortable at the plate.”
From then on, Willeford busted out, finishing the year as the Orange Empire Conference Co-Player of the Year after posting a .370 batting average, and a .413 mark in conference play.
After the season, though, an opportunity bigger than baseball emerged for Willeford. Suddenly, a lifelong dream of joining the Navy SEALs started to look like a reality.
Instead of following through on a commitment to continue his baseball career at UC Irvine, Willeford opted to endure a rigorous training program and worked a manual labor job while taking a year off from baseball.
“I was waking up at 5-5:30, getting down to the gym and doing a workout there,” Willeford said. “I worked at a family friend’s feed and tack store, which is like farm animals. I was bucking hay and people would come and give me a receipt and they would have 20 bags of hay, and I would have to load up their trucks.”
About a week after deciding to enlist, though, Willeford received a call from the Sun Devils' assistant coach and recruiting coordinator, Ben Greenspan, who was interested in bringing him to Tempe.
Ultimately, Willeford decided he missed playing baseball too much.
“It was one of the most unique recruiting experiences I’ve been around,” Greenspan said. “Any time you’re recruiting you reach out to the guys you know and the contacts that you have in various places. We started the process, and didn’t have a ton of luck because of how late it was. Ironically I was sitting at a game with an assistant coach from UC Irvine and we were talking about our need for an infielder. He said ‘I don’t know what this guy Jackson Willeford is doing, but he was committed to us last year, said he was going to come, didn’t come, you might want to call him up."
Because the Sun Devils had lost four of their five high school infield signees to the Major League Baseball Draft, Willeford filled an immediate need and the conversation turned into a stroke of luck.
Greenspan proceeded to hold a tryout for Willeford at Ramona High School, Willeford's alma mater, and after watching him hit and take ground balls, Greenspan decided Willeford was well worth taking a chance on.
“We sat in the dugout and talked for an hour,” Greenspan said. “I said ‘This is what we need’ and addressed every situation that has happened in the past. I said ‘Tell me exactly where you were at previous schools and why you are here right now and why you are still available.’ Just getting to know him, I felt comfortable that he was a pretty high character kid and had some unique circumstances that led him to be available now.”
Willeford's endearing character and larger-than-life persona has helped make him a favorite around the Sun Devils' clubhouse.
“He quickly became one of my very best friends on this team,” center fielder Andrew Shaps said. “He’s an awesome dude and we hang out almost every day on and off the field. I’m glad he had the opportunity to come here and chose to do so because he’s a great guy and a really great player.”
Recently, Willeford shaved his head to go completely bald, a decision originally stemming from a tweet by Shaps that received enough traction to convince Willeford to follow through on a bet.
Greenspan described Willeford as a player who “lives in the clubhouse," and said Willeford typically arrives earlier than all of his teammates to begin his daily activities. An ever-present personality has helped Willeford make up for lost time as a first-year Sun Devil.
“Guys absolutely love him,” Greenspan said.
The recognition for Willeford’s infectious personality has even spread all the way to his head coach, Tracy Smith, who is considering using Willeford primarily as a second baseman and as a top-of-the-order bat this season.
“He’s (Willeford) a likable person and he works hard,” Smith said. “It’s funny because when you join a team in your fifth year, you have a limited opportunity to make an impression, and you make an impression by how you go about your work. I don’t think anybody can question his work ethic or how he goes about it on a daily basis, so just by that, he has earned the respect of guys that have been here for a while but also the freshmen.”
Because of the respect he's commanded within the locker room, Willeford has begun to use his status to mentor a lot of the younger players, appealing to them through rough times that he also once endured.
“If I see a freshman struggling, I try to help out,” Willeford said. “Just saying ‘Hey man, you have a lot of time here.’ Seeing freshmen struggle, I can relate to that.”
Through it all, Willeford has kept a positive attitude and outlook on life that has allowed him to continue working toward two challenging goals, playing professional baseball and serving in the military.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” Willeford said. “A lot of stuff has happened and it’s neat being able to be the older guy out here and seeing the young freshmen coming in and realizing I used to be that. My mindset is a lot different right now. I’ll get frustrated but I’ll try to keep my cool for the most part.”
During all of his various trials and tribulations, Willeford has emerged as a much different person than he once was, and he is pleased about his current situation.
“Jackson four years ago was a lot more immature,” Willeford said. “I was kind of just that punk teenage kid that thought he knew everything. I’m happy with everything that has happened. All the injuries, all the road bumps, it’s given me a nice perspective on life and what is important.”